Monday, June 9, 2014

Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

Directed by Gareth Edwards. 2014.


The art of the tease is not so different from the art of filmmaking. Each presents us with something enticing yet veiled and both proceed to unwrap their surprises at the perfect pace to maximize our interest and heighten the effect of the final reveal. H. L. Mencken invented for the finer practitioners of this art the word ecdysiast, coming from Greek's ἔκδῠσις for casting off. One wonders whether Mencken was punning the word's other meaning, which is to escape or get out. Nonetheless both meanings apply to filmmaking teases, for the more layers you take off and the more slowly, all the more perfect must be the payoff. Likewise the deeper you get, the harder it can be to keep sight of the payoff amidst all the distraction and buildup. Yet if that buildup and distraction go on for too long, we lose interest and sight of what we came for.

Alas, this otherwise competent and effective reboot of the beloved Godzilla franchise, has such an enervating flaw. The first forty-five minutes, though, are expert buildup. Yes, the opening credits remind us too much of Roland Emmerich's 1998 monstrosity, but how many ways are there to explain lizard mutation and atomic bombs? We meet a family with whom we empathize because the parents are Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, and we're led on a little mystery hunt trying to find out what really caused a nuclear plant failure. This is all just right and gets us just enough invested in the characters and backstory without getting bogged down in complexity or bored by banality. About an hour in, though, we've only seen a few fleeing glimpses of him via ancient skeletal remains and grainy footage from the 1950s. We're teased just enough and we are ready for Godzilla.

So when the giant monsters start terrorizing the globe–such creatures and happenstances are part-and-parcel of the Godzilla series, if you don't know–we are really ready for Godzilla. Then when Godzilla finally arrives howling his trademark atomic roar and the camera immediately cuts away, we're dying to see Godzilla do something. Then, when Godzilla and the other monster are finally in the same place and having slowly approached each other start to grapple, and the camera cuts away again, I start to get annoyed. After they'd pulled that stunt another two times, I began to lose interest.

At that point, relentlessly cutting away from Godzilla and without Bryan Cranston, the only interesting character left, the movie got bogged down in following Cranston's son, who was alternately trying to get to his family in San Francisco and carry out the military's inevitably flawed plan to stop the monsters. The subsequent scenes held my attention surprisingly well considering my frustration at not seeing Godzilla and my indifference to people who aren't Bryan Cranston, but they can't carry the movie when that movie is Godzilla. I wouldn't have had a problem with seeing less Godzilla if the other parts had been more interesting, and the director and producer are wise to restrain themselves not to burn out the franchise in the first installment, but the movie is lacking something. Godzilla needed a more sophisticated science fiction plot, more character development, more monster battles, or it needed to be shorter. They declined the first two choices because people don't care about science fiction or characters anymore, the third not to burn out the franchise, and the last because people would feel cheated of their pricy ticket.

Instead they teased us some more, which could have worked if the tease had been justifiable, like waiting for all the monsters to be in the same place, but once they're cutting away from battling monsters for rubbish side plots and cardboard characters they're just wasting our time.

There's a lot to like here, though, including a weighty opening, charismatic leads–gone too soon, but charismatic nonetheless–and a simple, intelligible plot that eschews the incomprehensible, scatterbrained complexity which sinks so many sci-fi and monster movies. We even enjoy a few subtle, affectionate references to Jaws, Kubrick, and Jurassic Park. Best of all, though, Godzilla himself is a smashing success. He looks, sounds, and moves as he ought to and so he feels like the old Godzilla even sans the rubber suit. As a result, the final battle retains the style and charm of the original monster brawls. Here Godzilla fights two monsters double-teaming him and they whack each other around until Godzilla whips out his atomic breath. This is as it should be.

At first I was disappointed that the King of the Monsters seemed shrunken to a cameo in his own movie, but now I appreciate more the director's restraint. We see a lot of destruction, but there is always a reasonable and consistent sense of scale, and we see almost enough of Godzilla. With a little trimming and retooling what we got would have been enough, but as the movie stands, we're lacking a bit. I think in an age less desensitized to action and more admiring of economy and tension, though, this movie will be regarded higher among its peers today and in the Godzilla franchise.

Overall, this is a solid Godzilla movie. Director Gareth Edwards delivers a restrained monster picture with affection for the franchise's not-quite-kingly origins–Jet Jaguar anyone?–at a time Hollywood is left and right resurrecting and exploiting franchises with no regard for quality. With that and our attention-deficient age in mind, Godzilla is commendable and entertaining.

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